My home was just one of tens of thousands that were inundated by the horrific floods of a month ago. So you can probably multiply the frustrations I’ve encountered with a lumbering behemoth called FEMA.
I’m certain my experience is far from unique.
There should be a sign from Dante’s Divine Comedy reading “All hope abandon ye who enter here” over the door to the room for your FEMA interview. Besides a bottle of water while you wait to be called for the familiar dance known none too affectionately as the Bureaucratic Shuffle, you can expect to become hopelessly ensnarled in mind-numbing red tape.
This is not to cast dispersions on the individuals trying to process your claim. They are people with limitations just like the rest of us and I’m sure they’re doing the best they can at dealing with an endless stream of personal misery for eight to ten hours a day.
And therein lies the crux of the problem: they’re doing the best they can.
When disaster like this flood occurs, FEMA moves in. But it moves in to hire temps with no real experience of dealing with even minimal claims, let alone the volume of claims of such magnitude to inflict thousands upon thousands of losses totaling more than $7 billion.
The recruits are apparently taken somewhere and put through a weekend course of FEMAology 101 and then sent out to solve problems.
A typical process has homeowners being ushered into a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center scattered around the area—provided you can get a straight answer as to their locations (in my case, it took a phone call and a couple of Internet searches to find one; they apparently are quite mobile in that they seemed to keep jumping around).
Once registered, you are seated at the extreme right end of the back row of chairs (there were three rows). As those at the front left are called up for their interviews, we advance a seat at the time, not unlike those snake-like lines for rides at Disney World—except, thankfully, we were sitting.
That’s the fun part. After that, the frustration begins to set in—and it only grows from there.
“When you’re through here,” our first FEMA rep told Betty and me, “you need to sign up for your SBA loan. (I’m still trying to understand what the Small Business Administration has to do with my losing my home.) “After you’re denied by SBA, you need to come back to FEMA to apply for a grant.”
After I’m denied by SBA? WTF?! Why can’t we just go straight to the FEMA grant?
Oh. It doesn’t work that way.
So, according to FEMA protocol, we first had file an official claim with our homeowner’s insurance carrier even though anyone who doesn’t live under a rock knows full well a homeowner’s policy does not cover flood damage. Our homeowner’s carrier dutifully sent out an adjuster who did a walk-through. As expected, our flood damage was denied.
Then it was our flood insurance carrier’s turn and here some explaining is called for.
We initially believed we had no flood coverage because like everyone else in our part of town, we cancelled our flood coverage when we paid off our mortgage because the area of Denham Springs where we live had never in its history experienced high water.
But recently we borrowed $40,000 to pay for roof work, tree removals and other improvements. And our lender, to protect its interests, initiated what is known as a “forced buy” policy for the amount of the loan ($40,000) and added the premium ($2,000) back onto our loan.
Thus, when the flood struck, we stilled owed about $35,000 but the beneficiary is the bank, so we will have a net of about $5,000 to make massive repairs of $70,000 or $80,000—and to replace furniture and appliances.
To complicate matters even more, the adjuster for the flood insurance carrier explained to us that because the policy was for only $40,000, he was limited to that amount for his assessment of damages. “I can easily see much, much more in damages,” he said, “but my contract won’t let me go higher than $40,000. When I get to that amount in damages, even if I’ve only seen one room, I have to stop.”
Well, that makes a lot of sense: damages approaching $80,000 or so, but he’s has to stop at $40,000. Good thing they don’t kick you off an airplane if ticket prices go up in mid-flight.
So then the FEMA adjuster comes out and does his thing. Twice. He apparently failed to take a sufficient number of pictures his first trip, so he had to come back and take five more.
After all that, we were denied by FEMA because (1) we have flood insurance and (2) there wasn’t enough damage to our home to warrant a grant.
Never mind that we carefully explained the conditions of that flood policy. In FEMA’s eyes, we were insured and didn’t sustain sufficient damage to qualify for assistance.
So on Monday (Sept. 12) I returned to FEMA where I was greeted with a bottle of water.
Carefully, oh, so carefully, we (I had my son-in-law with me to help me keep my temper in check and to assist me in keeping the increasingly befuddling facts of this surreal nightmare straight) explained to the nice lady who had probably already heard about 20 various tales of woe (this was around 4:30 p.m.) that:
- Yes, there was a flood insurance policy of $40,000;
- But there was also an existing loan with an outstanding balance of $35,000 which leaves us with only $5,000 for repairs;
- Our damages at extensive in that our 2300-square-foot home was demolished (three feet of water will do that);
- Here is a copy of the insurance company’s declaration page clearly showing the $40,000 limit and here is a letter from the lender showing our payoff balance as of today;
- The flood insurance adjuster was limited to assessing damages at the maximum amount of the loan ($40,000), though actual damages were far in excess of that.
She listened quite sympathetically and then said we’d have to speak to FEMA’s insurance “expert,” who was seated a couple of seats away.
So, we not quite as patiently went through the entire process after which he blinked in a way strangely reminiscent of Bambi caught in the headlights and said we would “probably” (so much for any claim of expertise) need a letter from our lender explaining that the policy was only for $40,000 and that we still have a balance of $35,000 (very similar to the documents we’d just shown him).
Also, he said, we would need the homeowner’s policy carrier to send its adjuster back out to give a full appraisal of damages (like that’s gonna happen; that insurance company doesn’t have a dog in this hunt, so why should they comply with that request?).
And (apologies to the late Walter Cronkite) that’s the way it is on Tuesday, September 13, 2013.